Monday, 24 October 2011

A pause for thought before the coming winter (posted by James)

The risks and the rewards

At about 8:15am on the 28th February this year, I had one of the most memorable 10 minutes of my life. I was stood on the Aonach Eagach in the snow, watching the sun rise. I have seen dozens upon dozens of sunrises, but this was one apart. First it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, then it took my breath away. And in the minutes that followed it imprinted itself on my soul. I will take the raw beauty of that dawn with me to my grave.

I'm often asked by friends and blog-followers just why I am so massively inspired by the winters in Scotland. That sunrise appears again in my mind's eye, and I briefly toy with using it as an anecdote to explain. But the truth is, there's no point. You had to be there.

October and November are the months which are exciting and frustrating in equal measures for winter climbers in Scotland. And I find myself sometimes wondering…why go to such lengths? Why invest so much of my time and energy in such a notoriously fickle endeavour as winter climbing?

Just now I'm in training mode, trying to get as fit as possible before the season kicks in properly. I'm pretty fit just now, but am I "winter fit"? I don't know anything as physically demanding as a full season winter climbing in Scotland, and especially in the early season there just seems to be a great deal of effort involved. Two exhausting hours post-holing through deep snow to find your route isn't in condition can really ruin your day….

So you go through the quite usual run of bad days, route failures, awful weather and "sod-it-lets-go-to-the-pub-instead" moments, and then one morning it all comes together and you have an amazing day.

"Amazing"….just a word, and not an adequate one. Moments that are quite common and usual in a standard day of winter climbing are far outside the experience of the vast majority of people. And that includes all the bad days…a 12 hour epic on Ben Nevis is grim at the time, but how much life do you live in those 12 hours? A lot, I think.

It's a strange old thing, facing the start of my 3rd complete Scottish winter season with the knowledge gained from past experience. I know that in the next 5 months or so in the mountains I will experience ball-breaking fatigue, fear and anxiety. I'll feel such cold that it hurts and at points I'll probably have to fight for my life.

But I also know I'll experience such moments again as that sunrise on the Aonach Eagach. And that a few moments in the right place, at the right time, can quite genuinely touch your soul.

Have a great winter everyone.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Another quick route before the thaw (posted by James)

In my opinion the first rule of Scottish winter climbing is "get it while you can". So after having my appetite wetted by Ledge Route on tuesday I was determined to get in one more route before the promised thaw this evening.

When snow arrives at this time of year options are extremely limited, and doubly so for soloing. So despite having climbed it many times before, Dorsal Arete was my route of choice today.

Good to be walking in to a climb in the dark and snow again

I came across the first slushy snow just before entering Coire nan Lochan, and it remained slushy up until almost the level of the arete itself. I was slightly surprised to find Broad Gully completely full of snow, although all very soft and it would have been extremely hard work to ascend or descend.

A complete Broad Gully

Dorsal Arete itself was in acceptable condition, although with no frozen turf, soft snow and a fair few loose blocks around. Hopefully I didn't cause any problems for Jamie Bankhead who climbed it about an hour later!

Dorsal Arete today

It's all melting now, and by the look of the forecast most if not all the new snow will be gone very soon. But It feels great to have got out in the snow again, and to have dusted off the axes and crampons again. Hopefully in 3 or 4 weeks there'll be more snow, and fingers crossed it'll be back with intent.


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Ledge Route in early winter conditions (a guest post from Alex)

After months away from the mountains, how lucky for me that my return to Glencoe should coincide with a period of unseasonably wintry weather! I'm up here for a week, and on the first day I found myself once again tramping up the steep path from the north face car park towards the cliffs of Ben Nevis. My companions for the day were my brother James and fellow Clachaiger Mark; our objective, Ledge Route.

We didn't quite know what to expect in terms of conditions. Snow had settled on the mountain the previous day, but James and Mark believed crampons would not be necessary. All of us carried axes (I also took my crampons with me to be on the safe side). James also decided not to pack snow goggles, a decision he would come to regret!

Thanks to over-indulgence in whisky the night before, all of us were feeling a little rough as we slogged up through the forest. I perhaps felt it more than the others thanks to my lack of hill fitness after three months away from the mountains. Upon entering the Allt a'Mhuillin we came to appreciate that the Ben was looking much wintrier than we had expected.

At lower levels the snow tended to be soggy. The first 'ledge' on Ledge Route turned us back with a slick layer of wet snow on even wetter rock, so we took the detour around Moonlight Buttress and crossed No.5 Gully to take the higher start to the route.

At this point all of us had our axes out (although not strictly necessary) and I had my crampons on; the others chose a line of least resistance as the snow got deeper underfoot. Conditions improved the higher we climbed, and eventually we hit the freezing level and the rocks started to get icier. The others took care to avoid a slip.

In general conditions were surprisingly amenable: not too much wading but a good covering of snow, and some rime ice plating the rocks here and there. We were even treated to some spells of clear sky on the way up.

We reached the top pretty pleased with ourselves at having caught the route in such good condition. Immediately, however, the plateau decided to throw the worst of its weather in our faces! A gale blew a barrage of hail and icy snow in our direction; at one point the hail was so fierce that it felt like we were being pelted by needles. Mark and I wore snow goggles and were very glad of them. James staggered through the spindrift and near-whiteout conditions. It would be a respectable blizzard in the middle of the winter season, but for October it was quite a surprise!

On the way down the Pony Track we met a number of walkers, plus Alan Halewood who had been for a solo on Tower Ridge and found similar conditions to us.

Overall an excellent day on the hill, a good start to the 2011/2012 season, and of course it's very good to be back in Glencoe!

All photos (C) Alex and James Roddie 2011, all rights reserved

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Autumn in the wilds of Inverlael (posted by James)

Cona Mheall in striking morning sunshine

Anyone knowledgeable about the Scottish hills will know just how strong a reputation some of them have acquired.

Seana Bhraigh is a mountain with an almost mythical reputation - situated in the middle of the stunning Inverlael wilderness, it is often cited as the most remote Munro.

Seana Bhraigh - "The Old Height"

Early yesterday morning Jamie Bankhead and I started the long drive North to climb Seana Bhraigh and it's neighbour Eididh nan Clach Geala. As soon as we got to sunrise it was already shaping up to be a good day, with the brightest morning sky I've seen for a long time. It's been a dull autumn here so far, following a dull late-summer, and every moment of sunshine seems all the more valuable!

Amazing lighting during the morning drive up North

Just as we reached Aultguish we were treated to startling lighting - a low sun shining bright onto the hills with black clouds behind. That kind of lighting is always a photographer's dream, but added to the golden autumn hues all around and the sound of roaring stags, it was positively sublime.

Stac Pollaidh from Cadha Dearg

The walk itself was brilliant, and amongst the longest routes in Scotland for only two Munros. There is some very wild scenery to take in on the long haul to Seana Bhraigh - the huge corrie of Cadha Dearg being particularly striking.

An Teallach looking grand, seen from Eididh nan Clach Geala

And the view that reveals itself upon reaching the summit is awe-inspiring - An Teallach and the Fannaichs on one side, and the bizarre sky-line of Inverpolly on the other. Stac Pollaidh, Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach…..some of the very oldest mountains in the world.

The Inverpolly skyline - one of the oldest landscapes on Earth.

It seemed a very long way to continue to Eididh nan Clach Geala, and it was. But a landmark for Jamie B - his second to last Munro. A tiring day (7 hours driving and 28km walking) but a great day, in one of the finest places I've seen in Scotland.